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The In Home Assistant

Voice-based digital assistants have yet to become an everyday use case for most consumers. Siri, Google Now and Cortana have demonstrated potential, but the medium by which they are primarily accessed, the phone, is ironically no longer an optimal interface for voice. It's easier to type, touch and swipe your way to an answer or an action.

However, there is an environment in which hands free interaction provides a distinct advantage. The vehicle is one such place, but you're focused on the road and still have reasonable access to touch-based controls. The home, on the other hand, is a location where the ability to request something via voice can be the most efficient method of interaction. This becomes surprisingly apparent with Amazon's Echo device in your home.

Alexa, the Echo's digital persona, has quickly become a valuable contributor to our household. Sitting down to dinner, we can ask Alexa to turn on a favorite Pandora station. Running out the door in the morning, we can ask Alexa if we need to bring an umbrella. While making dinner, we can ask Alexa to set a timer. Finishing up the dish soap at the kitchen sink, we tell Alexa to add it to our shopping list. Before going off to bed, we can ask Alexa what time the nearest pharmacy opens in the morning.

Amazon has opened up Echo to third party developers via the Alex Skills Kit. Amazon handles the parsing and natural language processing, allowing developers to deliver cloud-based services to Echo users. Amazon has also partnered with IFTTT, a Lerer Hippeau Ventures portfolio company, to trigger actions across hundreds of services and applications. One of our favorites is the ability to trigger a call to your number to help find your phone.

Mass adoption of the Echo may be impeded by the current $170 price point, as it is the kind of consumer device you need to experience to fully appreciate. However, I have yet to meet an owner of the device that does not rave about it. It could grow from the same kind of passionate users that drove adoption of Sonos speakers.

Once there is a significant enough user base, you could see a wave of third party applications leveraging this new platform in the home. I am eager to see existing app integrations like Seamless to order food delivery, OpenTable to make dinner reservations, Uber to request a car, and Fandango to buy movie tickets.

Amazon may restrict access to competitors on the commerce front, but the new interface is bound to open up a variety of new applications to inform and entertain everyone in the household. If the Echo takes off, you can imagine competitive devices will be launched by Apple, Google, and perhaps Microsoft. The hardware could evolve to include cameras, with face recognition to tailor the experience to present members of the household, plus two way audio and video for communicating with others outside the home. The In Home Assistant could be the next great communications platform.

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